The Nationals will be more than just the Opening Day opponent for the Mets at Citi Field today. They'll provide a road map to where the home team hopes to arrive soon.
Washington is the consensus favorite to win the National League East this season, based largely on the strength of its starting pitching: Stephen Strasburg, who will pitch the opener, Jordan Zimmermann, Gio Gonzalez and Doug Fister.
The Mets are following a similar script, envisioning a rotation that includes Matt Harvey, Noah Syndergaard and Zack Wheeler leading their resurgence.
Unfortunately, Harvey will miss the entire season recovering from Tommy John surgery -- both Strasburg and Zimmermann went through the process -- and Syndergaard isn't expected to make his Major League debut until at least midseason. He has yet to pitch an inning above Double-A.
So it will be Dillon Gee against Strasburg at 1:10 p.m. ET, a matchup that may be a lot more even than it first appears.
Yes, Strasburg is one of the best pitchers in baseball. And, yes, Jon Niese likely would have gotten the nod to oppose him had it not been for the left elbow problems that nagged him this spring.
But Gee, as they might say in New York, isn't exactly chopped liver either. Try this as a trivia question: Which of the two pitchers had the better record in 2013? It was Gee, 12-11 compared to Strasburg at 8-9. (Worth noting: Washington scored three runs or fewer in 19 of its ace's starts. Gee got three or more in 20 of his 32 starts.)
The 27-year-old Gee also showed signs of coming into his own with a 2.74 ERA in the second half last season. He faced the Nationals an amazin' six times, going 4-2 with a 2.72 ERA against them. He described the opportunity as a "huge honor" and added, "I don't know what starter wouldn't want to start Opening Day."
It will be Strasburg's third straight Opening Day appearance, and he took it more in stride.
"I hope my career isn't just reflected on how many Opening Day starts I have," he told reporters. "There are a lot of guys, even in this rotation, who deserve it. I'm just the first one out. I'd definitely want to focus on making starts in the playoffs."
Strasburg made just one start against the Mets last season, taking the loss after allowing four runs (two earned) in six innings at Citi Field on April 19.
The Nationals made the postseason in 2012. The Mets haven't been there since 2006, and they're coming off back-to-back 74-win seasons. So it caught everybody's attention when it was reported that general manager Sandy Alderson privately predicted 90 wins during a meeting of club executives. Alderson didn't confirm it, but he didn't deny it either. And third baseman David Wright applauded the gauntlet that's been thrown down.
"We've got good players. I love the fact that Sandy is confident in us. I think 90 is challenging, it's attainable," the team captain told reporters. "I think 90 is a good starting point for giving us something to shoot for and getting guys to understand that mediocrity is not going to be acceptable.
"It's not about being better than last year. What does that get us? Third or fourth place?"
Mets manager Terry Collins had no problem with the number either.
"If our players perform like we know they can, we'll be fine. If we get that special season from someone, we'll be better than fine," Collins said.
While 90 wins would represent a significant milestone for the Mets, it's a minimal expectation for first-year manager Matt Williams and the Nationals. General manager Mike Rizzo noted that left fielder Bryce Harper, right fielder Jayson Werth and catcher Wilson Ramos all missed significant time because of injuries and that first baseman Adam LaRoche didn't play up to his normal level.
"We're fired up for the season," Rizzo told MLB Network. "If those players come back and stay healthy and are at 100 percent, I think we've shown what we can do. I think we've got a good team. We're in a good division. We have a lot of good teams in our division. We're not going to take anybody lightly. But we certainly don't fear anybody either."
Harper was never 100 percent after running into the wall at Dodger Stadium on May 13 last year. He underwent postseason left knee surgery as a result.
"It was a lot more serious than people thought," Harper said. "It would be nice not to run into a wall again. That's something I don't like doing. But I'm going to play the game hard like I always do and see what happens. I'm going to try to be smarter in certain situations."
Washington won 12 out of 19 meetings against the Mets in 2013. The Mets won't be thinking about that on Opening Day. But with a 34-18 (.654) Opening Day record, they will be thinking about beating the Nationals, the kind of team they want to be when they grow up.
Paul Hagen is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.